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An encouraging first step from Xinhua

UNTIL now it was easy to believe that Hong Kong was up in arms at the idea of a provisional legislature in 1997. Enraged callers to radio phone-in shows, and hostile questioning at public forums, combined to create an impression of popular outrage at the Preliminary Working Committee (PWC) political sub-group's proposal.

But today's first opinion poll on the subject paints a very different picture. Its surprise finding that Hong Kong people back the idea - by the narrow margin of 34 to 32 per cent - is bound to create shock waves.

Some will say it is a rogue result. But that is unlikely given the sample size of 1,004, which is far higher than most local opinion polls. A more likely explanation is that the public fears the uncertainty which having no law-making body in place at the time of the handover would create, and so Beijing is beginning to win the argument that a provisional legislature is the least bad alternative.

That, of course, is based on Beijing's own premise that there is any need to disband Hong Kong's elected bodies in 1997, as it has long threatened to do.

But it still goes to show how much ground Beijing can gain if only it makes an effort to explain its case to the public.

Yesterday saw an excellent example of that when Xinhua Research Director Yang Huaji broke new ground, becoming the first-ever mainland official to attend a question and answer session, modelled along the lines of Governor Chris Patten's highly successful policy address public forums.

The middle-ranking official may not have had much experience in dealing with the public, but even democrats were full of praise for Mr Yang for allowing himself to be grilled so freely.

It is an encouraging step towards more openness and an example that his superiors, Zhou Nan and Lu Ping, would do well to emulate. Today's poll shows a strong vein of popular support they can easily tap into. Yesterday's public forum shows how this could be done. If Mr Yang can do it, then surely, his bosses can, too.